Debates concerning caste-based politics have taken a significant turn in the wake of the decisive electoral victory of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in May. Caste-based political parties, notably the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh (UP), and the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)) in Bihar, experienced an unprecedented electoral defeat at the hands of the ‘grand Hindu coalition’ forged by the BJP. Given the remarkable electoral routing of parties that once galvanised marginalised populations against upper-caste political domination, a nuanced explanation of how exactly this happened is vital. Indeed, how and in what ways did Dalit, Backward Caste (BC) and middle class interests coincide, and where lies the future of caste politics?
In the game-changing states of UP and Bihar, a critical number of Dalits deserted parties such as the BSP and JD(U).
A post mortem
In order to form government in India, a party must gain more than 272 of 545 seats in the Lok Sabha. While the BJP won 282 seats, importantly (and somewhat counter-intuitively), it won 41 of the 84 seats reserved for Dalits, with the party’s allies securing an additional ten of these seats. It also won 93 of the total 120 seats from the states of UP and Bihar (and vote shares of 42 and 29 percent respectively), which together form the political reservoir of Dalit and BC politics. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP took 27 of the 29 seats available, while it did not lose even a single of the total 25 seats in Rajasthan. Together these four states provided the BJP with over 50 percent of its Lok Sabha seats and ensured a single party-led national government – a first since 1984. Other significant electoral successes for the BJP occurred in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand where it secured 118 seats in total, with an average vote share of 44.4 percent.
In making sense of the massive cross-caste mandate given to the BJP, four explanations have been put forth. First, empiricists point out that it was the dextrous management of social alliances – dividing opposition voters, uniting the BJP’s traditional vote base and successfully reaching out to voters outside of the BJP’s core demographic – that led to victory. A post-poll survey carried out by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies reveals that: (a) the traditional vote bank of the BJP – the upper castes and trading communities – voted almost en-block for the party; (b) the BJP was able to attract a significant number of non-traditional supporters, including BCs, especially in the critical states of UP and Bihar; (c) one in every four Dalits voted for the BJP; and (d) Muslim votes were made almost redundant because either their vote was divided between ‘secular’ parties, or, alternately, the addition of their numerical strength to the most viable non-BJP party was insufficient for electoral success under the first-past-the-post system. This was exacerbated by the fact that in the game-changing states of UP and Bihar a critical number of Dalits deserted parties such as the BSP and JD(U), while in most other states they shifted their allegiance from Congress to the BJP or a regional party, many of which were in alliance with the BJP. Finally, the BJP skilfully stitched together pre-poll alliances with Dalit and BC parties in Bihar and Maharashtra that translated into critical additions to their existing support base.
Second, many argue that Modi successfully converted the election into a referendum on his model of development by showcasing Gujarat, the state where he was chief minister for three consecutive terms, and its ‘impressive’ economic record. During the campaign Modi proclaimed, “Gujarat is showing the country what is possible, and once we walk this path it is irreversible. The result is inclusion, happiness and people empowered to reach their potential.” Counterarguments outlining the fallacies of Gujarat’s ‘development’ model in statistical terms – whether by activists, opposition parties or even respected intellectuals like Jean Drèze – failed to dissuade voters from electing the BJP.
Third, others contend that Modi’s pro-business policies, reflected in slogans like ‘less government and more governance’ and ‘no red tape, only red carpet’, translated into massive (and ultimately definitive) corporate funding of his election campaign. Commentators estimate that the BJP spent a staggering USD 800 million throughout the campaign on advertising alone. Besides door-to-door campaigning by volunteers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP employed a number of innovative campaign measures including a ‘television blitzkrieg’ and Google Plus Hangouts, as well as using 650 GPS-enabled high-tech vans and 11 million election-related tweets to propagate Modi’s name. The then prime ministerial candidate addressed 5800 rallies in eight months and traversed around three lakh kilometres. As a result, Modi was ubiquitous on TV screens and radio airwaves, vigorously spreading his message into homes throughout the country. The multi-pronged political campaign launched by Modi conveyed a strong message: India required a strong leader who can take charge of the country and its development needs, in contrast to a decade of Congress rule characterised by a weak prime minister, dynastic politics, poor governance, inflation and corruption.
Fourth, we are told that the Indian framework for defining the relationship between state and religion was flawed. In the immediate wake of Modi’s victory, Shiv Visvanathan wrote in the Hindu, “What secularism did was it enforced oppositions in a way that the middle class felt apologetic and unconfident about its beliefs, its perspectives… Secularism thus became a repression of the middle class… Narendra Modi sensed this unease, showed it was alienating and nursed that alienation.” With a towering and domineering personality like Modi around, Visvanathan believes the middle class no longer felt the need to “be ashamed of our religion”. The message in this argument is clear; the grand Hindu coalition complete. Indeed, even sections of the middle class who were indifferent to voting in previous elections were morally and socially persuaded to vote for Modi.
While at times compelling, each of these four arguments are, in the final analysis, shallow, and merely speak to the symptoms of larger sociopolitical issues. Indeed, Modi’s victory was primarily a result of the failures of caste-based parties to substantively empower their core supporters, and the BJP’s ability to fuse the seemingly disparate interests of Dalit, BC and middle class voters by stoking a ‘politics of disillusionment’.
Given the inadequate political programme advanced by caste-based parties, the BJP was able to effectively identify and stoke a politics of disillusionment that fed on the collective alienation of social groups from their original political choices.
In India, caste-based political parties came to the fore primarily due to the ills of the ‘politics of equal recognition’ – a political brand that insists on the principle of equal citizenship and equal access to rights and entitlements. With the constitutional guarantee of formal equality, some Congress members and eminent sociologists in the post-independence era expected that the development of capitalist modernity would dissolve social differences originating from caste, even as the constitution itself provisioned affirmative action. Many Left ideologues, on the other hand, considered class to be the only useful sociological category. In other words, for both establishment and radical forces, differences emerging from caste were often of little political significance.
These approaches were rejected by large portions of Dalits and BCs in favour of a ‘politics of difference’. In contradiction to the paradigm of equal recognition (which its detractors claim is ‘difference blind’ and views people through a homogenous lens, thereby imposing a supposedly neutral set of principles that, in fact, reflect a single hegemonic culture) the politics of difference emphasises the distinctness and particularities of each individual and argues for the non-assimilation of group and individual identities. This approach advocates acknowledging differences and making them the basis for differential treatment on behalf of the state. Understandably, caste-based political parties have concerned themselves primarily with the politics of difference. Despite its basic commitment to equal recognition, the Congress also acknowledged the politics of difference, though, historically, did not pursue it as aggressively as caste-based parties. This partial shift helped the Congress retain the support of Dalits and BCs and restrained the expansion of caste-based political parties beyond UP and Bihar.
Dalit and BC activists throughout India (and, as the election results demonstrate, in UP and Bihar especially) have become increasingly frustrated that their relative political empowerment has not erased the damage from centuries of caste oppression. These groups perceive limited success in decades of political assertion and electoral engagement, and a sense of disappointment that socio-political empowerment has been unable to deliver economic mobility. Indeed, for Dalits and BCs, the ‘politics of difference’ approach is necessary, though inadequate by itself. As political scientist Nancy Fraser argues, a politics of difference (she calls it the ‘identity model’) is inherently limited, and a ‘politics of redistribution’ that would involve reorganising the division of labour, redistributing income, subjecting investment to democratic decision-making, and transforming other basic economic structures, must become a priority for those engaged in identity politics.
Given the inadequate political programme advanced by caste-based parties, the BJP was able to effectively identify and stoke a politics of disillusionment that fed on the collective alienation of social groups from their original political choices, reliant as these choices were on notions of difference. This process was shaped by and dependent on two interrelated elements that characterise caste-based parties: political rudderlessness and political powerlessness. While the former implies a deficit of political vision (caste-based political parties have tended to forge opportunistic political alliances to acquire political power, thereby compromising their original mandate), the latter denotes the ineffectual use of the tools by which their goals may be achieved. The failure of caste-based parties to usher in what Fraser calls ‘transformative recognition and redistribution’ meant that a critical section of Dalits and BCs shifted their political allegiance to the BJP – a political formation whose ideology upholds social hierarchy and contradicts the basic premises of progressive Dalit and BC politics.
Remarkably, the same political platform that appealed to disenfranchised Dalit and BC voters was also fundamental to the electoral choices of the middle class. The largely upper-caste middle class (professionals, trading communities, public and private sector employees, etc.) are, for the most part, contemptuous of affirmative action, redistributive policies and minority welfare programmes. Unlike in the Nehruvian and pre-liberalisation eras, they no longer required the state for economic advancement: the upper-caste middle class, having acquired the relevant assets and skills, can now compete in the market based on ‘merit’ alone. Hence, affirmative action is considered to compromise a merit-based social order while increasing welfare spending and fostering a culture of political appeasement.
Although the middle class has been opposed to affirmative action for some time, it has not been able to defeat the political formations supporting it at the ballot box. Their disillusionment further deepened with the perception of weak leadership at the Centre, numerous corruption scams, poor governance and patronage politics practiced by the ruling dispensation. They saw a visionary leader in Modi who has the potential to take India to the next stage of fast-paced growth and development in which merit and competition are the critical virtues, and accountability and transparency form the public ethos. In the absence of a viable discourse on governance issues, the middle class’s disillusionment and powerlessness was pivotal in garnering votes for Modi. In other words, it was the anxiety of the middle class that Modi exploited and used to craft his politics of disillusionment. It would therefore be wrong to suggest, as Visvanathan does, that middle-class anxieties were primarily the outcome of a misplaced concept of secularism.
A meaningful consensus
In a society as complex as India, a politics of disillusionment was able to convince social groups traditionally holding opposing political ideologies to vote for the same party. Indeed, while some middle-class support for the BJP is assumed, a small shift from the Dalit and BCs was enough to secure the BJP’s victory.
Despite their electoral routing, caste-based parties remain relevant. They must, however, forge a new direction by adopting a politics of recognition and difference, as well as of substantive redistribution. The former is already occurring, with caste-based parties and activists contesting negative identities while producing and disseminating a self-affirming culture. A genuine politics of redistribution is, however, still lacking.
One way of implementing a politics of redistribution is by supporting the emerging principle of economic citizenship. While the informal sector produces 60 percent of India’s GDP and creates 93 percent of total employment, it also provides livelihoods to a majority of Dalits and BCs. The sector is marked by low wages, irregular work opportunities, discriminatory practices and an absence of social security benefits.
The Indian state must encourage broader economic participation and create the necessary conditions under which citizens can be economically active. Until it does this, the politics of disillusionment will persist. Engaging a politics of redistribution is not only essential for the future of caste-based parties, it is also crucial for the BJP if it is to build on the remarkable support garnered among Dalit and BC voters in the recent election. For caste-based parties, a redistributive focus will, no doubt, become the subject of heated debate; for the BJP it is unlikely, not least because it risks alienating the party’s core support base – the middle class.
~Aseem Prakash is an associate professor and chairperson at the School of Public Policy and Governance, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad.
~Suraj Gogoi is a research associate at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.